As a resident of an assisted living community, maintaining good nutrition is one of the most important ways to insure a long and healthy life. Food, for better or for worse, is the fuel we run on. Just like vehicles, bad fuel can cause us many expensive and troublesome problems, especially as we age. Unfortunately, even with this knowledge, nutrition inside many assisted living communities can be more of an afterthought than a norm. Assisted living communities are not federally regulated so each state develops its own regulations and this can be challenging when choosing a new home. Nutrition, foodservice, and sanitation guidelines can vary widely across the country.
Educating yourself on elder nutrition guidelines, coordinating with doctors and creating good communication with the staff, both on the floor and in the kitchen, is key. It is necessary to ask the administration for specific information, such as:
- Does the facility have a full time dietician who is certified in proper nutrition and special dietary needs?
- Also, does the facility offer residents ongoing nutritional education so they can be involved in their own health regime? Nutritional knowledge changes as we age, so assisted living communities should be teaching updated nutrition to their residents.
As a family caregiver, you are responsible for developing a proactive plan and checklist of personal nutrition requirements to help your loved one avoid problems later. In other words, set your expectations and ask many questions. For instance:
- Is the community actively involved in determining and planning for each individual resident’s nutritional needs?
- Will the dietician sit down with you and plan a course of healthy action in regards to your loved one’s nutritional and caloric needs?
- Does the community welcome unannounced visits to the kitchen? Those kitchens that have the highest of food quality and cleanliness standards will be happy to show you the kitchen – at least when it is not in the middle of a meal rush.
Ask questions about commonly overlooked topics like:
- When are meals served and is this a regular schedule?
- What happens if a meal is skipped by a resident for any reason?
- If a resident needed assistance at mealtime, who is available to help them?
- Can the facility accommodate special needs diets like vegetarian, salt-free, kosher, etc?
- Are residents given access to healthy foods and snacks? Take a look at the menus and check that they are being followed.
- Eating fast foods and highly processed foods leads to excessive intakes of fat and cholesterol, obesity, higher intakes of sodium and insufficient vitamins and minerals. How much processed foods are in the daily menu?
- Asking questions about food safety practices like sanitation may be the last thing on your mind when you are considering an assisted living home but because of the dangers of food contaminations it shouldn’t be. The elderly have a much higher risk of having a fatal reaction to food contaminants and food-born illnesses than the general population. Asking how and where the food is prepared along with how they transport and ensure temperature control during delivery are all valid questions to ask assisted living staff.
Here are a few more simple steps to make certain your loved one is receiving and eating properly prepared and nutritious foods.
- Is the assisted living facility providing low-fat healthy choices?
- Do they present dishes that are visually colorful, full of aroma and tempting in flavors so that the residents want to consume them?
- Are they consistently including heart healthy and high fiber dietary alternatives?
- Are beverages provided on a constant basis? Being hydrated and consuming more fiber helps to create regularity and prevents bowel impactions and serious health issues like the breaking down of skin.
- Are liquid dietary supplements available for those that are unable to eat hard food?
To help assist you with a guide to what and how much of any item you or your loved one should consume visit the USDA’s website, MyPyramid.com. The site includes personalized eating plans along with interactive tools.